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Social Activist Dr Mallika Sarabhai On The Importance Of Self Care For Women, Gender Stereotypes And Social Change

In conversation with Dr Mallika Sarabhai on how she has been using her art and dance to bring a required social change in the society

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New Delhi: As NDTV-Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign marks the month of May with the theme ’Self Care For Mothers’, we speak with a special guest Dr Mallika Sarabhai, who is a dancer, Padma Bhushan awardee, a choreographer, actor, writer and most importantly a social activist, who has specialiSed in using the dance and its various art forms for bringing in the required social change and transformation in the society. Here’s what we discussed

NDTV: What according to you is the best thing about Art as a medium to connect with people?

Dr Mallika Sarabhai: If you look at India or any other ancient cultures, art was never a thing apart from living. It was a reflection of life, what you are going through and the work you are doing. Art is like interwoven in every aspect of our life. And that’s what communicates, because it is from the heart, it reflects personal experiences and also plugs the experiences of the humanity. And that is why it is considered to go beyond language.

NDTV: When did you started using art as a medium to bring about social change in the society?

Dr Mallika Sarabhai: The Hindus on day-to-day basis live under a lot of myths. Look at the way gods were addressed – it is Sita – Ram and not Ram Sita, it is Radha Krishna and not Krishna Radha, it is Lakshmi Kanta and not the other way round. So, where did this association of a man as a women’s person was tilted by patriarchy. And where did these women get reduced to these black and white convenient figures that one could use to oppress women in current times. It is then I thought, I really need to come out and use methodology to peel away patriarchy in the society.

Also Read: Women And Self Care: When And Why Should You Start Seeing A Gynaecologist

NDTV: How important is Self Care for women in today’s time and what larger impact does it have on her family and society in large?

Dr Mallika Sarabhai:  I will start by quoting one of the experiments that I have done in the last few years. It started when I used to come from office and visit Darpana academy and used to see all the mothers sitting outside the dance school with their children inside. One fine day, I just stopped and asked them how many of you want to learn the dance with me. They gave me responses like no it is like too late, some said I always wanted to do and my parents didn’t allow and some added, I couldn’t do as I got married early…That’s when I asked them all, come and do dance with me and do this for your own joy. And this became one of the most incredible things. These women at the age of 40, 50, 60 finally found their joy. Today, their families have transformed completely, because these women overall have transformed and we get calls from their husbands and children, who tell us that we should continue doing what we are and ensure their wives and mothers are doing this because back home they are completely different, they are happy. So, the way these women have blossomed is something to look up to.

Women spend all their lives in this stupid society of ours being asked to be dutiful and sacrificial. We need to understand that happier we will be within ourselves, the more joy and care we will give to others.

It is important to know that self care isn’t selfishness. Women need to look after themselves. Self care is important as it gives women the feeling of being fulfilled and looked after and that is what spreads the joy in the family. It takes aways the feeling of being tired at all the time, being yelled at by the husband or exploited by the children.

Also Read: Self Care For Mothers: Pressures Of Motherhood Can Impact Women’s Mental Health, Say Experts

NDTV: Tell us about the shift you are seeing related to violence against women today?

Dr Mallika Sarabhai: I think, there is more violence today because the general level of violence has gone up. There is gender, cast violence, #MeToo crimes – all of these involve women. There are much more abuses today, the internet is full of that, especially for women. Women in public life, women in media get it all the time. So, there is much more of violence today. In addition, there is many more forms of violences and the platforms. Also, there is very little change, what is changed is that women are more willing to talk about the crimes. They want to be a survivor and not a victim. Women have realised that violences like rape, sexual abuse happen not because they have done something wrong, they have realised that these violences are an invasion of her privacy and that’s why they are speaking up to get justice.

The shift that actually needs to take place is to work on the men of our society so that they don’t feel threatened and they don’t take women first as ‘women’ and much later as human being.

We need to try and overcome the gender and binaries in the society and work towards making our children human beings first.

All forms of violence are much heavy today and it needs a big change. This needs to start from an early age and women should take the responsibility to bring about this change.

Also Read: Self Care For Mothers: What Is Postpartum Depression And How Can New Mothers Overcome The Condition?

NDTV: Some things which concern women like menopause, menstruation – these are the things we never talk about. They are still a taboo, why do you think it still exists in our country?

Dr Mallika Sarabhai: A women menstruating is the most powerful symbol of a race going on. If the women don’t menstruate that race will die and if she does, then women can give birth and therefore human race can continue.  Menstruation is labelled as a dirty thing and the irony is that if women don’t menstruate, no humanity will be there as she won’t be able to give birth.

We need to break these stereotypes. We need to be more educated and aware about things. Do you know menstruating blood has more stem cells, which can save lives? This is the reason why a lot of European countries are not using sanitary pads anymore and switching to using menstrual cups. I believe, in countries like Sweden there are hospital trucks that go around collecting the menstruation blood so that stem cells can be retrieved form it and can be given to patients with cancer and other diseases and lives can be saved.

If we start educating people about this, if we start saying that this is not dirty and women are asked to rest because they are renewing their internal selves as this time that would later help them to become mothers, instead of saying menstruation is dirty and therefore you will be put in this lonely room and you are not allowed to touch anything or go anywhere. There will be a lot of change.

It is as simple as this – if menstruation is dirty then the whole human race is dirty.

Also Read: Self Care: Five Tips For Your Everyday Life

NDTV: What is Darpana Academy doing about gender sensitisation?

Dr Mallika Sarabhai: We interact with people, go to schools and educate people on how to break the gender stereotype in the society. Everything we do, from the book language to the colour coding leads you to the same style of education – this is what girls do and this is what boys do. In Darpana, we actually go to different schools and sit in the classrooms and video record the behaviour of the educator. Sometimes, the teacher doesn’t even realise that they are being gender biased..And that’s where we step in. Why do we still have girls colour coding in pink and the boys in blue? Why do the great Indian walls of the classrooms have 99 per cent of men. These are some of the areas where we work on. We have been doing quite a few research and see how our programmes can break these particular things in children who are very young. Research shows, a three-year-old does not see a difference between gender but by the time they are five they are already seeing the differences as they start getting the labels.

I feel, we need to start at the younger age and break these gender stereotypes in the society.

NDTV: How we can use dance to bring about a change in the society?

Dr Mallika Sarabhai: We have done a lot of work in this; we talk about things as differently as possible in the form of dance. We have topics ranging from – How to handle diabetes to why the girl child should have education, to gender-based violence and environment-based destruction. For all these topics, we have used our dance form to educate people.

NDTV: How Has COVID-19 pandemic affected the world of art and dance?

Dr Mallika Sarabhai: It was pretty difficult before the pandemic as well. Not for the visible people like me but for many other people. When you talk about the dance performance you are not thinking of the person who made the Ghungroo. You are not thinking of the weaver who is weaving Kanjivaram saree and whose loom would probably shut down, if there is no work. You are not thinking of the person who is in charge of making instruments like Tabla, mridangam….One only thinks about the person who performs the art in front of the audience. We need to realise that there are hundreds of things that lead up to one performance on the stage. The whole industry is in the dire state.

India never had a consistent policy to support the art, it was always been who is the IAS officer, who is in charge of the cultural ministry and so on, which is awful. Where are the patrons – the government is not the patrons, the templates are no longer the patrons. There are no kings who support artists. COVID made things pretty bad but it was not like it was in a best of shape earlier.

NDTV: In terms of impact, how do you see your own art making the social change in the society and making the difference?

Dr Mallika Sarabhai: Through the arts we teach human beings to be humans. We teach them the roots and teach them that the branches can go anywhere. I think, the very fact that I am still being asked by colleges, schools to come and perform and talk to the students, highlights the fact that there is a possibility that my kind of work is having an impact.

NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ populationindigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (WaterSanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollutionwaste managementplastic banmanual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.


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